★ ★ ★ ½
In the late 1980s, five young men from Compton, CA, kicked off a seismic shift in popular music. Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella, jointly known as N.W.A., were catalysts for the explosive popularity of hip-hop culture in America. While their time as a functioning collective was short-lived, their brash, confrontational debut LP had an impact on the gangster-rap genre that is still being felt today. Director F. Gary Gray tells the story of the group’s rise to fame and subsequent splintering in the engrossing Straight Outta Compton.
Gray begins with the backstory of the three most well-known members of N.W.A.: Eazy, Cube, and Dre. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) is deeply involved in the drug trade in South Central Los Angeles. His success as a dope dealer has brought him a huge sum of money, but Eazy knows that his life expectancy as a slinger is dangerously short. O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (played by his own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a high-school student with a keen eye regarding his troubled surroundings. He carries around notebooks of lyrics, constantly jotting down new rhymes that reflect the unforgiving streets of Compton. Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) is an unemployed dropout who spends his days honing his already impressive DJ skills, scratching funk and soul records and manipulating beats to create a distinctive sound. Along with mutual friends MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), the five men begin to collaborate on their music.
N.W.A. start playing shows to increasingly large crowds in the Los Angeles area, and eventually draw the attention of music manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Eazy and Heller soon forge a business deal, establishing a partnership that would last for years and lead to nearly all of the disputes between members of the N.W.A. The manager facilitates a deal for the group with Priority Records, and they begin work on their seminal debut album, Straight Outta Compton. The record is a massive success, catapulting the group into the public eye with their “reality rap” gangster image, brutal lyrics, and controversial cuts like “Gangsta Gangsta” and “F. tha Police.” They embark on a nationwide tour, facing opposition from local law enforcement at every juncture and even receiving a strongly worded letter from the FBI. However, money ultimately tears the tour apart: Eazy and Heller’s partnership has left Cube, Dre, and the rest without any royalty payouts. Ice Cube quits the group to go solo, finding immediate success with the release of his debut record AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted in 1990. Dr. Dre follows suit a few years later, forming a partnership with controversial L.A. kingpin Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) that leads to the creation of Death Row Records. The remaining members are left with Heller, causing the three factions to feud with each other via diss tracks and physical altercations. The group dynamic of the five men, once known for their unforgettable collaborations, gradually devolves into an ugly public dispute over money and street cred.
There is no shortage of narrative heft in Gray’s biopic, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given the rich history of N.W.A. and the beefs between its ex-members. While the story might seem convoluted to rap neophytes, Straight Outta Compton remains compelling due to its brilliant cast. Mitchell harnesses the quirky charisma of Eazy-E, illuminating the screen with his presence; Jackson gives a measured and weighty portrayal of his father; and Hawkins is excellent as the oft-reserved Dr. Dre. For the second time this summer, Paul Giamatti takes on the role of a money-hungry manager, though his portrayal of Jerry Heller in Compton is less overtly malicious than his turn as Eugene Landy in Love & Mercy. Regardless, Giamatti is effective as the sneaky Heller, whose crooked contracts created tremendous strife among the group.
The finest moments of Straight Outta Compton come during the salad days of N.W.A., with all five members feeding off of each other’s energy at live shows or inside the studio. There is no shortage of schmaltz in Compton, but these flashes of melodrama often give way to laugh-out-loud moments. Screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff make us care about every member of N.W.A., paving the way for the emotional death of Eazy-E; he succumbs to AIDS in 1995 shortly after being diagnosed with the disease, just as he had made peace with Cube and Dre and they were entertaining the idea of a reunion.
Compton is careful not to demonize any one member of the group (save Heller), which shouldn’t come as a surprise with Dre and Cube serving as producers on the film. Yet it’s possible to wonder if a more brazen story ends up getting buried beneath the nearly two-and-a-half-hour run time: N.W.A. signaled a sea change in pop music, but their revolutionary fervor is mostly downplayed in the script. With that said, Straight Outta Compton gives moviegoers an effective glimpse inside one of the most important forces in music of the last 30 years.